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"Avatar is Killing Us!" - Alex Holycross on Music and Mentors

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

by Tara McDermott, The Portrait Witch

The Native Howl, by Photographer: Bryan Beasley

Alex Holycross, lead singer and guitarist for The Native Howl, is wandering around Grand Rapids, Michigan with earbuds and bare feet when we connect. I’ve spent the last 48 hours binging every morsel I can find about his band and their strange brand of musical alchemy. He’s been playing shows across Quebec and Ontario. Little did I know it, but I would be delving into a deeply philosophical chat with a man who has a deep appreciation for music, his mentors, and the impact both can have on the world.

When I first listened to their song “Harvester of Constant Sorrow” I wondered what the heck I just listened to. When I mention this to Holycross he laughs and replies, “I know. I know. When we play it, I go ‘What the hell did I just play?’” The song is a blend of his favourite bluegrass song “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” by fictitious Oh Brother Where Are Thou band The Soggy Bottom Boys and “Harvester of Sorrow” by his all-time favourite band, and metal heavyweights, Metallica. You might think the song is a straight-up mashup, but I assure you it is a deeply thoughtful arrangement blending bluegrass and metal into the genre they call “thrash grass.” When I ask him what he thinks Metallica would say about this version of the song that “came to him in sudden as he was running through the woods” he says, “So, best case scenario, they love the song and that makes us happy. Worst case scenario, they sue us and then we get to meet them. I’d like to think that if they ever heard it, that they would appreciate the arrangement and the idea even if they don’t like the song.” Is Metallica, the band whose ring he’s been wearing since he was 15 years old, on their list of dream artists to share a stage with? You bet they are. And that dream may be getting closer as they “keep knocking names off the list.”

Last year they checked off another name on that dream list when they toured for a week with the artist Holycross feels is the reason The Native Howl exists, Zakk Wylde, and his band Black Label Society. He regales me with the story of when he heard the song “Losing Your Mind” by one of Wylde's other bands, Pride and Glory, which opens with a banjo asserting that the song led him to learn to play banjo when he was 14. Now Holycross plays lead guitar in The Native Howl because he feels the banjo is too difficult and he's just "not smart enough" so he leaves that to his talented bandmate Jake Sawicki. I disagree. He's smart enough to know his strengths lay elsewhere. “Anyway, the whole reason I’m telling you this is these cool moments where I got to . . . after we got to tour with Black Label Society, I got to go to Zakk Wylde and I got to shake his hand and look in his eyes and say, ‘not only were you an inspiration for me quitting drinking, but also you’re the reason I got my very first banjo.” Holycross felt a little weak in the knees when he met the man who is “somebody who’s just inspired [me]. Who’s been such a positive force in [my] life.”

"It's all love and light disguised as death and darkness."

Holycross recently celebrated his 3-year anniversary of being sober, he claims “It sucks to do but it’s so worth it.” He doesn’t like to talk about it much and only gives himself the “Facebook pat on the back” once a year to celebrate. He shared with me something his friend, Wyatt Bartlett, the lead singer of Rifflord, said to him about heaviness and metal music that he feels is the most “poignant, powerful way” to describe what metal music is all about: “It’s all love and light disguised as death and darkness.” Isn't that just beautiful? It's that philosophy that guides The Native Howl. All they want is “to just help people with our music.” When writing their new song, “In Death” which he describes as being “very sad and depressing and kind of fucked up,” Holycross realized that he hopes those who hear music about people having dark thoughts and about people who are in indescribable pain, know that they aren’t alone. “And that they know that since they’re not alone, that they’re gonna be ok. ‘Cause we’re all in this together. I think that would be the legacy [that we’d like to leave] that letting people know through our music that no matter how sad you feel in certain moments, that you’re not alone. And because you’re not alone, you’re gonna pull through.”

And while they want listeners to know they aren’t alone, they also want those who attend their concerts to have fun. Currently, The Native Howl is being inspired by the “monstrous” stage show for the band that they, and fellow metal band Orbit Culture, are opening for. "The Almighty" Avatar. “It’s insane. Like, the production value would be … it’s just … it’s wild! I swear to God we left the show [last night] and we’re like ‘Alright boys . . well . . .Avatar is killing us! We’ve got to step our stage production up.’” They spent the drive from Toronto, Ontario to Grand Rapids, Michigan brainstorming how they could bring the sense of fun that Avatar brings to their stage show, and the sense of fun and style that embodies their music videos like "Sons of Destruction," to their stage show. I don’t want to give away all their secrets, but they have some pretty rad ideas involving forests and moonshine stills percolating in their brains. For this tour, though, they have a “high-energy [opening] show” where 50% of the music you’ll hear is from their new album which has yet to be released. They hope to release the first single from the new album sometime in October. Until then, get your ass to Avatar’s Chimp Mosh Pit Tour to check them out and hear it first live!


They’ll be opening for the wickedly fun, AVATAR at Coors Event Centre in Saskatoon, SK on September 30, 2023, along with Orbit Culture. Doors open at 6:30 pm and you can get your tickets here: Avatar Chimp Mosh Pit Tour.

P.S. I know you're wondering why Alex Holycross wanders around barefoot. Did you know he also performs barefoot? As he tells it, it's because "I'm a complete and total psychopath." Seriously though, it's because he feels more grounded, connected to the earth, and more balanced for thrashing around on stage. I mean, that's pretty damn important, don't you think? Performing in boots = a total klutz show for him. Anyway, if you see Alex around, be sure to ask him what Zakk Wylde thought about it, you'll be wildly entertained.

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